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A Conversation With Dr. Eric Kandel

October 23, 2012

When Dr. Eric Kandel sat down for an informal conversation with Cynthia McFadden Tuesday at the Roosevelt House in New York, he set the tone right away. “Lets use first names, ” he said to the Nightline anchor. “No one calls me Dr. Kandel.”

That’s not quite true, of course, but it is true in his lab, and Dr. Kandel, the esteemed neurobiologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2000, was both personal and candid as he talked about his life, from his childhood in Vienna to his education and career in the United States to his recent efforts to reconcile with the country that his family fled in 1939.

“I can keep on beating up on Austria forever, he said. “They deserve it, but I think it’s more productive to help Austria become a more democratic, more open country. It has more of an impact, and does more to honor my parents.”

The story starts in Vienna, where Dr. Kandel was born 11 years after the end of World War I. His father owned a small toy store, and he recalls vividly his ninth birthday, on Nov 7, 1938, where his gifts included a beautiful blue toy car. Two days later, on Kristallnacht, the family was ordered to leave their home, and when they were allowed to return, everything of value was gone, including the blue car.

Dr. Kandel recalled children who had been his friends suddenly stopped talking to him, and he was soon no longer welcome at the school in his neighborhood. He credits his lifelong interest in the mind to an obsession with “how such cultured people could get involved in such barbarity. The Austrian attack on Viennese Jewry was one of the worst of all time.”

Transplanted to the United States, Dr. Kandel attended Erasmus High School, where he emerged from the shadow of his brainy older brother by being better at sports, he said, and girls. He expressed gratitude, more than half a century later, to the Erasmus history teacher who encouraged him to apply to Harvard, and gave him the $10 application fee. No one in his family at the time was familiar with Harvard, he noted. When he talked to an aunt about it, he said, “the first five times I said Harvard she heard Howard.”

It was at Harvard where Ernst Kris, a psychoanalyst who had been in Freud’s circle in Vienna, encouraged Dr. Kandel to become a psychoanalyst. “If you want to understand what drives fascist attitudes, ” he said, “you need to study science, psychology.”

By his last year in medical school, Dr. Kandel—still planning to become a psychiatrist—had become so interested in the biology of the mind that he decided to spend some time in the lab of neurobiologist Harry Grundfest. While he was working with Grundfest, he met his wife to be, Denise Bystryn, the daughter of French Jews who had survived the war by hiding from the Nazis in the south of France. Denise, he said, encouraged him to pursue science, though he worried that he should go into private practice to make more money. ” ‘That’s absurd,’ she said. ‘Money is of no significance,’ ” Dr. Kandel recalled, adding impishly, “She’s never said that again!” Denise also, he said, helped him get over his lingering sense of inferiority to his brother Louis. “She pointed out that he was encyclopedic, while I was more creative.”

When McFadden asked Dr. Kandel to recall the biggest risk he’d taken in his career, he named his decision to study memory storage in the marine snail—the work for which he won the Nobel—which he said prompted colleagues to protest that he was throwing away his career. But in fact he was choosing a strategy he would use successfully throughout his career, what he calls a “radically reductionist approach,” attempting to discover the mechanisms of the human mind through cellular analysis of a simple organism. “I didn’t think it was courageous, I thought it was right. I don’t have ‘external’ courage,” he noted wryly, “but I have ‘internal’ courage, and I did it, and it was a very smart move. ”

When McFadden asked him to look back over his life and think of a decision that wasn’t so smart, that he perhaps regretted, Dr. Kandel said, “I didn’t spend as much time with my children as I should have.” At Denise’s prodding, he added, he “shaped up a little over the years, but it’s been a major problem in my life.” Kandel told the story of a toast he gave at his own 75th birthday party, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. “I raised a glass to my children, who have been great parents. I said I was only a B+ father, and my daughter yelled out, ‘Grade inflation!’”

He could be wealthier, he added, he could have been a better parent, “but you have to decide what gives you pleasure, and my work gives me pleasure.”

When McFadden asked him what’s missing from his life, if there was something more he would like to have in his life, he said quickly, “No. I can’t ask for more in my life. A Jewish kid who gets beaten up in Vienna, and ends up sitting here with you, in an interview like this? What the hell else could you ask for?”

Tagged with: Mental Health
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller is the editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. In that role she directs development of resources on … Read Bio